August 16, 2021 — The bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for expanding access to reliable, high-speed internet service, passed in the U.S. Senate last week. The full text of the bill, posted on the website of U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, appears to be identical to the draft of the bill detailed here by the law firm Keller & Heckman.
For those of us who favor local internet choice, the bill is a mixed bag filled with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Of the $65 billion allocated in the bill, $42 billion of that is to fund the deployment of broadband networks in “unserved” and “underserved” parts of the country. The good part of that is the money will be sent to the States to be distributed as grants, which is better than handing it over to the Federal Communications Commission for another reverse auction. The FCC’s track record on reverse auctions is less than encouraging, and state governments are at least one step closer to local communities who have the best information on where broadband funding is needed.
In a nod to community broadband advocates and general common sense, the bill requires States to submit a “5-year action plan” as part of its initial proposal that “shall be informed by collaboration with local and regional entities.” It goes further in saying that those initial proposals should “describe the coordination with local governments, along with local and regional broadband planning processes,” in accordance with the NTIA’s “local coordination requirements.”
And the bill specifically says that when States award the grant money, they “may not exclude cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, public-private partnerships, private companies, public or private utilities, public utility districts, or local governments from eligibility for such grant funds.”
That alone is a major victory considering how much lobbying money was lavished on Congress by the cable and telco giants who for decades now have fought fiercely to prevent federal and state governments from making any funding available to cooperatives, nonprofit organizations, and local public agencies in order to protect themselves from competition.
Another good nugget contained in the bill is that after years of trying to prod the FCC into upgrading the minimum definition of broadband from 25/3 Mbps to something more in line with current needs, the bill requires ISPs who receive funding to provide speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps.
And another Easter egg: a separate $2 billion pot of money will be added to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity program, which was first established with the Covid relief package administered by the NTIA and passed in December 2020. It also changes the timelines for that program, giving Tribes more time to develop solid plans for how to improve internet access.
A few other hidden gems
The bill allocates $2.75 billion to establish two NTIA administered programs to promote digital inclusion initiatives for communities that “lack the skills, technologies and support needed to take advantage of broadband connections.”
Broadband networks that use funds to build networks must offer at least one low-cost broadband service option for eligible subscribers.
The bill revives consumer broadband labels, originally established by the FCC in 2016. In 2017, as you may recall, the newly installed FCC chair Ajit Pai steered the agency to issue the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which not only overturned net neutrality rules, it also shelved the broadband nutrition label.
And, lastly, there’s one part of the bill that is good but with a huge caveat: it indefinitely extends the Emergency Broadband Benefit program by allocating $14.2 billion for a “sustainable” (and re-named) Affordability Connectivity Benefit that would provide a $30 per month voucher for eligible low-income families to use toward any internet service plan they choose.
The obvious caveat: it’s $20 less per month than what EBB is offering now and it relies on Congress’ willingness to continually fund the program, which, depending on which way the political wind is blowing and who is in office, it’s subject to be cut.
Another caveat: not only is this a big giveaway that will funnel millions of federal dollars into the coffers of the big monopoly providers, the EBB program is administered in such a way that makes it hard for new, small, and even mid-sized Internet Service Providers to participate or, in some cases, discourages them from making the effort. For a discussion on how poorly the EBB is administered see this episode of Connect This!
Not only does the bill not prioritize funding for municipal, cooperative, and non-profit networks, it exclusively prioritizes funding for “unserved” areas defined as areas that do not have access to a paltry 25/3 megabits per second service. It further defines “unserved service projects” as projects serving areas where not less than 80 percent of locations in the project area are unserved. (This is better than requiring 100 percent, which often makes projects unviable.)
Secondarily, the grant money can be used to fund projects in “underserved” areas, which is defined as areas that do not have access to broadband service delivering between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps. The bill further stipulates that in order to use the grant money for “underserved” areas, the State has to certify that all “unserved” locations have already been served.
This is bad because there aren’t many places outside of the most rural regions of the country that do not have access to 25/3 broadband service. And considering that large swaths of suburban and metropolitan areas would not qualify as “underserved” (lacking access to service offering between 25/3 Mbps and 100/20 Mbps) because they are “served” by high-cost, underperforming monopoly providers, this bill can be seen as a way to ensure expanded broadband access is confined to mostly rural America, while all but ignoring the broadband challenges in non-rural parts of the country, which is where most Americans live.
In other words, there’s nothing in this bill that includes the more robust elements contained in the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act or what President Joe Biden’s initial American Jobs Plan called for: namely, a bill that addresses the affordability gap and also encourages competition in a way that favors community-centric solutions as an alternative to the corporate shareholder-focused monopoly model. There is very little in this that will help fix broken broadband markets.
As noted by Issie Lapowsky, Protocol’s chief correspondent, the bill “does away with some parts of President Biden’s initial proposal that were the least popular with the telecom industry, including more-aggressive requirements regarding network speed and provisions that would have targeted grant funding to municipal, government-run networks.”
She notes how the bill is “good news” for the telecom giants, quoting Blair Levin, former executive director of the National Broadband Plan and current policy adviser to New Street Research, on why Comcast is a big winner.
“They (Comcast) have a head start because they invested 10 years ago in trying to accomplish the same goal, which is trying to get the currently unconnected people online,” Levin said, citing Comcast’s low-cost Internet Essentials program. “By virtue of the staff, the relationships, the understanding of messaging and the importance of digital literacy, Comcast has skated to where the puck is going.”
The bill requires the FCC to come up with rules within 2 years “to facilitate equal access to broadband internet access service, taking into account the issues of technical and economic feasibility presented by that objective, including (1) preventing digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion or national origin and (2) identifying necessary steps for the [FCC] to take to eliminate such discrimination.”
This is an ugly part of the bill, not because on the surface it will force the FCC to wrestle with “digital redlining,” but because it essentially means the Senate is kicking the can down the road two years to study something we already know is happening right now.
To further bring home the point, a recent study by the Brookings Institution, shows that people who live in cities are three times more likely to lack access to broadband than their counterparts in rural America. As the study notes:
“The digital gap between urban and rural parts of the country tends to garner the most attention. However, our analysis of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data tells another story: The majority of digitally disconnected households live in metropolitan areas, and the gaps are especially large when comparing neighborhoods within the same place. Effectively, some residents live in digital poverty even as their neighbors thrive.
“Until metropolitan leaders and their state and federal partners can address the situation, we can expect a kind of digital segregation to persist across metropolitan America.”
All in all, while the bill does nothing to promote competition in a broken market dominated by monopoly providers, it’s not all bad. Or as Karl Bode wrote for Vice, “while the plan should help the up to 42 million Americans without broadband, it falls short in upending the rampant regional monopolization that has left 83 million Americans stuck with just one ISP.”
Or as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Ernesto Falcon tweeted in his bottom-line take-away, after the Senate vote:
The Senate broadband provisions will be dependent on states being smart about future needs. California, with its universal fiber focus, can do very well.
States that restrict public broadband infrastructure & hand it to cable, those are going to be failures (so don’t do that).
— Ernesto Falcon (@EFFFalcon) August 10, 2021
Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on August 11, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.
Infrastructure Bill Brings New Focus on Decision Making at Community Level
Funneling of infrastructure funds through states differs from Obama-era broadband programs.
WASHINGTON, January 24, 2022 – Community broadband advocates say the ability for local governments to decide what can be done with broadband money from the recently-enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the best way to manage federal funds for broadband expansion efforts.
During a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday, leaders at community broadband advocacy group Institute for Local Self-Reliance said this sets up a local community-based approach to connectivity, bypassing some of the issues with the Federal Communications Commission’s limited broadband maps.
Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher at the ILSR, said that local communities are the best source of information on where within their boundaries there are connectivity issues – far surpassing the knowledge of the FCC’s maps.
The infrastructure legislation, which became law in November, will provide a minimum of $100 million to each of the states to use toward broadband expansion. The states that have applied for American Rescue Plan money now have heaps of cash to work with fully connected their boundaries with high-speed internet.
Christopher Mitchell, director of the ILSR, said Wednesday that for many states the law “may solve almost all their rural broadband problems.”
Local approaches may also make it easier to hold accountable officials who do not effectively spend IIJA funds, Mitchell said, adding that was one component of the law that was missing from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark stated that the law’s structure of funneling money through states is noteworthy, as the notion of responsibility for individual states to enforce policy has long been a “conservative talking point.”
The panel noted that like RDOF, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program from Barack Obama’s presidency also differed from the IIJA in that it did not rely on individual states to dispense funds.
Mitchell attributes these differences in the IIJA in part to general trends toward decentralization in policy.
Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. You can watch the January 19, 2022, event on this page. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.
Wednesday, January 19, 2022, 12 Noon ET — The Community Broadband Network Approach to Infrastructure Funding
Community broadband networks will play a crucial role in the implementation of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, particularly the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, and the Digital Equity Act. This vital session of Broadband Breakfast Live Online will bring our friends from MuniNetworks.org, the Community Broadband Networks Initiative of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, to discuss the issues, trends and concerns they are following. What open questions remain about the IIJA rules? How do the Treasury Department’s rules on the State & Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program interact with the IIJA program? What concerns should community networks have about the next stages of federal funding in their states?
Panelists for this Broadband Breakfast Live Online session:
- DeAnne Cuellar, Community Broadband Outreach Team Lead, ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative
- Sean Gonsalves, Senior Reporter, Editor and Researcher, ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative
- Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, Senior Researcher, ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative
- Christopher Mitchell, Director, ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative
- Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast
Please note: Our event on “State Broadband Officials and the Broadband Infrastructure Surge” has been moved to February 16, 2022.
- Christopher Mitchell: Treasury Department Rescue Plan Act Rules Improve Broadband Funding, Broadband Breakfast, January 13, 2022
DeAnne Cuellar is a tech equity advocate and communications strategist from San Antonio, Texas. She served as Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s digital inclusion appointee to the City of San Antonio’s Innovation & Technology Committee, resulting in several policy and funding priorities to close the digital divide. As a social impact entrepreneur, she co-founded several cross-sector nonprofit initiatives, advocating for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion for historically underrepresented communities.
Sean Gonsalves is a longtime former reporter, columnist, and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He is also a former nationally syndicated columnist in 22 newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Kansas City Star and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune. Sean joined the Institute for Local Self Reliance staff in October 2020 as a senior reporter, editor and researcher for ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken is Senior Researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative. He is interested in the democratizing power of technology, systems engineering, and the history of science, technology, and medicine. Previously, Ry worked as an Adjunct Professor of American History in Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Minnesota. Ry holds a Ph.D. in American History from Oklahoma State University.
Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. Mitchell, a leading national expert on community networks, Internet access, and local broadband policies, built MuniNetworks.org, the comprehensive online clearinghouse of information about local government policies to improve Internet access. Its interactive community broadband network map tracks more than 600 such networks. He also hosts audio and video shows online, including Community Broadband Bits and Connect This!, and Public Knowledge presented Christopher with its Internet Protocol award in 2021, which honors those who have made significant contributions to Internet policy.
Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney. Drew brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he served as head of a State Broadband Initiative, the Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He is also the President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress.
As with all Broadband Breakfast Live Online events, the FREE webcasts will take place at 12 Noon ET on Wednesday.
Christopher Mitchell: Brendan Carr is Wrong on the Treasury Department’s Broadband Rules
The Federal Communications Commission has no excuse for why the agency finished with the same bad data it started with.
With all due respect to Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, his reaction to the Rescue Plan Act’s State and Local Fiscal Relief Fund (SLFRF) spending rules is way off base. As I wrote last week, the rules for broadband infrastructure spending are a good model for pushing down decision-making to the local level where people actually have the information to make informed decisions. (Doug Dawson recently also responded to Commissioner Carr’s statement, offering a response with some overlap of the points below.)
See Christopher Mitchell, Treasury Department Rescue Plan Act Rules Improve Broadband Funding, Broadband Breakfast, January 13, 2022
The Final Rule from the Treasury Department gives broad discretion to local and state governments that choose to spend some of the SLFRF (SLurF-uRF) funds on broadband infrastructure. The earlier draft of rules made it more complicated for networks built to address urban affordability challenges.
However, in coming out against the rules, FCC Commissioner Carr is giving voice to the anger of the big cable and telephone monopolies that cities can, after collecting evidence of need, make broadband investments even in areas where those companies may be selling services already. Commissioner Carr may also be frustrated that he has been reduced to chirping from the sidelines on this issue because the previous FCC, under his party’s leadership, so badly bungled broadband subsidies in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) that Congress decide NTIA should administer these funds and have the state distribute them.
Nonetheless, the issues that Commissioner Carr raised are common talking points inside the Beltway and we feel that they need to be addressed.
The failure of the FCC to assemble an accurate data collection is many years in the making. No single presidential administration can take the full blame for it, but each of them could have corrected it.
President Joe Biden’s FCC is not yet fully assembled because of delays in appointment and in Senate confirmation, but it would not be reasonable to lay blame on the current FCC for the failures discussed below. That said, it is not clear that we are on a course for having better maps and data that will resolve these problems anytime soon.
Commissioner Carr’s Criticism
Commissioner Carr jumps immediately into the rural vs urban frame, suggesting that the Biden Administration could leave rural families behind by allowing local governments to invest in broadband in areas where an existing provider may already claim to offer service. Outlawing this practice – which he and others close to the largest cable and telephone companies call “overbuilding” – has been a major point for Republican FCC Commissioners.
- Rather than directing those dollars to the rural and other communities without any Internet infrastructure today, the Administration gives the green light for recipients to spend those funds on overbuilding existing, high-speed networks in communities that already have multiple broadband providers. This would only deepen the digital divide in this country.
Pardon me? Logically, it is not clear what exactly Commissioner Carr is griping about here. Using Maryland as an example, if Baltimore is allowed to spend some of its funds to ensure unconnected families in public housing have high-quality Internet access, it is not clear that rural Garrett County in the western part of the state is harmed. Local governments do not receive different amounts of funds based on whether they spend it on broadband or other allowable expenses.
See Christopher Mitchell and other from the Institute for Local Self Reliance in the Broadband Breakfast Live Online for Wednesday, January 19, 2022 — The Community Broadband Network Approach to Infrastructure Funding
States could be the issue. Perhaps Commissioner Carr is concerned that Maryland will use some of its SLFRF money for broadband and it will spend too much in urban areas rather than rural regions. That would be an historical anomaly, even though there are far more people living in urban areas than in rural areas who are not on the Internet. And yet, nearly all state and federal dollars have gone to rural areas for infrastructure improvements, with very little being spent to help the low-income families left behind in urban areas. There is no history of states prioritizing urban investments over rural.
Bad Data, Srsly?
What I found really galling though was this bit:
- It gets worse. The Treasury rules allow these billions of dollars to be spent based on bad data. It does this by authorizing recipients to determine whether an area lacks access to high-speed Internet service by relying on informal interviews and reports—however inaccurate those may be—rather than the broadband maps that the federal government has been funding and standing up
It is 2022. The FCC announced three weeks ago that it did not have a timeline for better maps. Many of us have complained for more than 10 years about the misleading and inaccurate collection of claims that the FCC advances as its understanding of where broadband exists in the United States.
Commissioner Carr has been an FCC Commissioner for more than four years, nearly all of that time when his agency was run by a Republican. For part of that time, the Republicans controlled the Presidency, the House, and the Senate. They have no excuse for why his party’s FCC finished with the same bad data processes it started with. No one was defending the FCC data or maps during those years, but the FCC did not bother to begin collecting new data.
Now Commissioner Carr claims that “parts of this country” have broadband services at speeds near 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. OK, Commissioner. Where? Do you have a secret list? No, these are talking points to obscure the fact that Commissioner Carr and his agency has utterly failed to track precisely what “parts of this country” actually has access to broadband.
Will I agree that most, perhaps 80 percent, of the country has access to 100 by 20 Mbps? Yes. But that doesn’t matter if no one can agree which homes are well-served. And it opens up a whole other set of questions that Carr neatly sidesteps, which is that contemporary broadband service goes beyond the academic question of whether an ISP provides that service most of the time at some price. If the price isn’t affordable, then there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Or as we like to say, if it’s not affordable, it’s not accessible. And, if the service is not very reliable, then there is a problem that must be addressed.
This is why the final rule is both necessary and good: because it allows communities the flexibility they need to address not just the gaps in infrastructure, but reliability and affordability as well. But of course Commissioner Carr should know that we do not have this information at the federal level, because I’m quite sure he opposes collecting pricing and other information. Despite the many instances in which providers have lied to the Commission in presenting the areas they offer service, Carr objects per se to local evidence gathered via interviews to understand where broadband actually is.
A Prediction: This Is Not A Problem
It is remarkable to see the amount of performative horror Commissioner Carr expresses at the prospect of a city like Baltimore using some of the Rescue Plan dollars to ensure its families in public housing are on the Internet, even if a cable provider could theoretically sell them Internet access for $75/month, or provide a subsidized service if they jump through all the right hoops. Compare that to the silence from the Commissioner when it became clear that the largest telephone companies took billions of dollars in broadband subsidies and might have forgotten to upgrade their services.
The SLFRF Treasury Rules give the appropriate amount of deference to local and state leaders to act in an utter void of information about what is available to each home. Commissioner Carr is deeply worried – because the largest cable and telephone companies are deeply worried – that some places will use these dollars to build networks that are unneeded or would create too much competition for the existing companies.
My prediction is that communities will not do this. Of course it’s not zero: a cardinal rule of dealing with large numbers of humans is that there are always outliers. But of the cities that allocate some of their SLFRF dollars to broadband infrastructure, they will overwhelmingly focus on areas where there are real affordability and reliability challenges from existing services. The reality is that very few of these investments will result in any material losses to existing ISPs, but the monopoly providers know that even modestly opening the door to locally built and operated infrastructure driven by community-driven solutions could open the floodgates to the competition they fear so much.
Commissioner Carr has spent years as one of a very small number of people that could correct the abject failure of the FCC to collect useful information about broadband deployments. The rest of us have had to move on and figure out how to work in the absence of data. The best option is to allow for local decision-making where they can collect evidence and act. And most importantly, they will have to take responsibility for their actions and lack of action in ways that FCC Commissioners often do not.
Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. His work focuses on helping communities ensure that the telecommunications networks upon which they depend are accountable to the community. He was honored as one of the 2012 Top 25 in Public Sector Technology by Government Technology, which honors the top “Doers, Drivers, and Dreamers” in the nation each year. This piece was originally published on MuniNetworks.org on January 20, 2022, and is reprinted with permission.
Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to email@example.com. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.
Preparing Collaboration Model, Data Collection Suggested Before Infrastructure Money Flows
With infrastructure bill, there is no longer a shortage of funds for states to expand their broadband infrastructure, consultants said.
WASHINGTON, January 20, 2022 – While billions in federal dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are still many months away, work can be done to tie-up some loose ends, including figuring out internet speed criteria and best partnerships for broadband builds, said a consultant Wednesday.
Heather Gold, founder and CEO of broadband consulting firm HBG Strategies, noted on a Broadband Bunch webinar that the $65 billion for broadband from the infrastructure bill won’t be available until next year. But she noted that infrastructure money and existing American Rescue Plan Act funding means states are no longer financially limited in their efforts to expand broadband.
That means internet service providers and states need to be thinking about how to manage this pool of funds, according to Joanne Hovis, president of engineering and consulting firm CTC Technology and Energy.
Hovis said local service providers can get ahead by choosing the right collaboration model for broadband builds. That includes partnerships with electric cooperatives, which can own wood poles on which telecoms attach their equipment, or a partnership with the local government, such as that being done in Vermont.
Hovis also encouraged data collection efforts to make broadband service prices publicly available and easily accessible knowledge, and advocated for competitive bidding processes for broadband grants that result in benefits for as many service providers as possible.
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